The Truth is Out There Truth and the Practice of Law
August 21, 2003 (edited: September 18, 2003)
Most of us accept the X-Files credo and take "The Truth" somewhat for granted. We believe that we know what is true and what is untrue. Even when we do not know for certain if something is true (say something told to us by someone else) we believe that there is a "Real World", and that this Real World is out there. We believe that Real things happen in the world and that, if we were to observe the event or fact first hand, we would know that it was True. Essentially, in the Western World at least, we truly do believe that "The Truth" (a thing) is "out there".
Still, despite the fact that we all know what is Real and True, Truth and Reality have been topics of debate amongst philosophers and theologians for thousands of years.
How could something that is so obvious be debated for such a length of time?
The first part of the answer is easy. Up until a few hundred years ago "the world" was an ill-defined place and we humans did not see it as simply the collection of items and facts (truths) that we do today. Many things were very mysterious and caused by God or gods. When your world is driven by Myth, you have a much more difficult time pining down what is and is not true.
With Science came facts. Facts are lovely pockets of assumed truth that our entire common existence is now built on. I know, for example, that my chair is beneath me, that this day is sunny and warm, that I am typing at this computer. These are facts that are comfortable to me because I verify them personally. I also know that France exists and that you can get there by plane. I cannot verify the existence of France personally but there has been enough evidence presented to me that I am certain that the fact of Frances existence is true. In fact, I am so certain about truths such as the existence of France that I plan vacations around them. Imagine how terrified I would be once I was aboard a plane headed for a place I was not certain existed.
Similarly, such things as Gravity are True and, while I do nothing but observe its effect, I rely on its truth every day. It keeps ashes in the ashtray for example.
But The Truth is not so simple and it is not always "out there". Once time has passed, for example, there can be no more actual verification of many truths (history). This is of particular consequence to the practice and study of law.
In a courtroom, at the end of a case, the truth is what the judge has decided it is. That decision will be based on truths that are easily verified and truths that are no more than guesses. The judges decision relies on the belief that somewhere, amidst the often-conflicting statements and evidence, the Truth, the Real Truth, does exists. That is, the judge believes (as we all do) that something did happen at a time and place and that, had we all been there to witness it, we would all know what The Truth was.
But we were not all there and there is no way we can verify first hand what The Truth is. In a criminal trial it is often only the victim and the accused who actually know The truth. This is why truly being innocent is not enough and means very little to lawyers.
A truly innocent, standing accused before the court, can only sustain that innocence "out there" where truth is measured if either the Prosecution can not prove his guilt or he, himself, can prove his innocence. Because of this, whether the accused is innocent or guilty is not really important to anyone other than the accused and, perhaps, the victim. What is important to everyone else is the verification of that innocence or guilt. This verification is determined by finding out the Truth. This verification must be based, where possible, on truths that are universally accepted (like gravity or the fact that an object can not exist in two places at the same time). Where universally accepted truths are not available, the truth becomes what the Judge believes at the end of the day.
Making the legal quest for truth even more difficult is that our perceptions get in the way of finding it. We so deeply believe that the Truth is "out there", existing without being seen but verified through perception, that we are willing to disbelieve our own eyes rather than disbelieve the truth of the "real world". If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, we do believe that it produces sound waves that "in theory" could be heard. All we need to do is have an objective observer of an event and we can verify its Truth.
But who gets to play the purely objective observer. If I say that the car was green and travelling slowly eastward and you say it was blue and travelling quickly west, who do we rely upon to decide what is true? We rely upon the judge who will decide the truth based on whom he or she finds to be the better observer. However, this does not guarantee The Truth. It may statistically lessen the chances that the court has accepted an untruth but there will still be mistakes made when the person appearing to be the more observant is wrong either by mistake or through purposeful deceit.
The truth is muddied further by perception because two people can honestly believe that they saw the same thing while still having very different stories about what that thing was. No one needs to lie to have his or her own story conflict with anothers. To me, things happened the way I know they happened. That is what I remember and that is, to me, The Truth. Therefore, if your story is different than mine, in my mind this means you must be either lying or mistaken. If we both believe that we are correct as to The Truth of the matter and yet we do not agree, then we both must believe that the other is lying or mistaken. After all, we cannot both be telling The Truth and still be at odds. Things only happen one way.
The bottom line is that, while we may accept (for the sake of argument) The Truth in the existence of this desk or that tree or even France, The Truth about things that are important to us is often beyond our reach. Innocence or guilt, which are extremely important, is a question that is never decided on a first hand verification of the persons soul. It is decided based on guesses, built upon facts, built upon accepted truths and it is always a dubious finding.
There are also degrees of truth in court. These degrees of truth represent a balance between accepting unverifiable facts on the one hand and the repercussions of accepting those facts on the other. Because of this, one may be innocent of murder in a criminal trial where the repercussions will be imprisonment or, in some cases, death, while being guilty of the same murder in a civil lawsuit where the repercussions are monetary in nature.
As soon as one understands the distinction between these two degrees of truth, one realizes that the justice system is not searching for The Truth that is "out there". That is, the court is not particularly interested in the "The Truth". The court is interested in a "Reasonable Truth" that it only can hope corresponds to the "Real Truth". How closely the Reasonable Truth and The Truth correspond can be guessed at based on how true the verifiable facts of the case are. At a certain point, in some cases, we can be all but 100% certain that the two are the same. In most cases, however, we get nowhere near ever knowing if what has been decided as true is, in fact, The Truth.
It is not that the court does not care that it might have reached a decision far from The Truth, it is that there is nothing that can be done about it because The Truth is not "out there": in most cases The Truth is what is only what exists "in here".